Conducting car maintenance can be both a do-it-yourself (DIY) thing and a matter best left to the caring hands of professional mechanics. Given that cars are valuable investments, car owners are always encouraged to practice proper car maintenance, but in our increasingly busy day to day lives it can be easy to neglect your car.
I should know. I recently spent about an hour in driving rain changing a flat tire only to realize both tires on my passenger's side were flat. It also happened to be pouring rain.
Did I mention that I was on a bridge in the middle of Tampa Bay?
Did I also mention that after my unfortunate realization I had to sit for another 2 hours waiting for a tire because of the rush hour traffic?
Yeah, not the best situation to be in. Luckily, it can be avoided.
To make sure you don't end up like me, you want to make sure you're taking good care of your car. Having an extended warranty can help, but it won't fix your car for you.
Here are the most common instances where car maintenance mistakes take place. Read on to find out what to avoid and how to deal with them moving forward.
1: Not inspecting your tires regularly
I'm not putting this one first because I just got burned by it, I swear.
I'm putting it first because without your tires turning your car isn't going anywhere fast. If you aren't checking your tires you risk increased maintenance costs and decreased fuel efficiency at the minimum.
At the maximum, you run the risk of a potentially deadly tire blowout.
But we aren't taught to regularly check our tires, which is a mistake!
Not ensuring your tire pressure is correct
As I learned the hard way, a tire can appear completely inflated but still be under inflated. Don't make the mistake of thinking you can get away with not checking your tire's air pressure, even if you have a Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) in your car.
Because the TPMS is only designed to give you a warning if your tire is severely under inflated, your pressure can be off by several PSI before the computer even detects it.
Having the correct tire pressure isn't just about avoiding a flat. Having the right tires with the right pressure can help your fuel economy significantly.
Unfortunately, only about 19% of consumers inflate their tires properly.
That's a problem.
The US Department of Energy reports that you can improve your gas mileage by anywhere between 0.6-3% on average by just inflating your tires properly.
In fact, under-inflated tires drop your gas mileage by about 0.2% for every 1 PSI your average tire pressure is below the manufacturer's recommendation.
You can find the recommended tire pressure for your car inside the driver's side front door, or in your car's user manual.
We recommend checking your tire pressure at least monthly.
For best results, measure the tire pressure in the morning after not having driven for at least 3 hours. Don't forget to check the spare tire too.
You might end up in the middle of a bridge and need it.
In my opinion, all cars should have a tire pressure gauge on hand to do routine checks, no matter how advanced your car's onboard computer is.
An electronic tire pressure gauge will set you back about $10.
A new tire will set you back at least $80.
Keeping your tire pressure normal also increases the life of the tires
When one of your tires are under inflated, your tires wear unevenly and you'll end up replacing them more often than you have to.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that correctly inflating all 4 tires can extend the life of the tire by nearly 5,000 miles.
Assuming you drive the national average of around 13,000 miles a year, keeping the correct PSI in your tires translates into an extra 4.5 months of rubber meeting the road.
It's worth doing.
Not checking your tire treads semi-regularly
Your tires are designed to last about 3-4 years of "normal" driving, which is between 12,000-15,000 miles a year. With normal driving, the tread on the tire wears out faster than the rubber breaks down.
With that said, it's incredibly important to check your tire treads at least once every two months.
It can be pretty simple too. Tires with less than 1/16th of an inch of tread need to be replaced.
Ironically, you can use our 16th president to determine if your tires have less than 1/16th of an inch of tread.
Driving on tires that are too old
You might think your tires are fine because you're not driving all that often.
Unfortunately, that isn't the case. If your tires are old, regardless of whether they have tread or not, you can be in danger.
For a high profile example, look no further than the 2013 accident that killed Fast and Furious star Paul Walker. The Porsche Carrera GT he rode in had tires that were 9 years old, and may have played a role in the car losing control coming out of turn.
Aging rubber will crack over time from stress and environmental factors including heat and moisture, and damage the reliability of the tire.
As cracks appear over time, the steel belts in the tire tread can start to separate from the tire, putting you at risk of a blowout.
The NHTSA doesn't have a specific recommendation for tire aging, which they defer to each specific manufacturer. With that being said, every tire will eventually succumb to age.
Some factors that age your tires more rapidly:
- Heat and Light: The NHTSA has found that heat and sunlight both age tires more rapidly. They also found that tires in coastal climates tend to wear out faster, likely due to the salt content in the air. If you live in a warm, coastal climate you should keep this in mind when deciding to replace a tire!
- Proper/Improper Treatment: As we've already learned, a tire that's not properly inflated will wear out faster. The same is true for repaired tires. Tires that have been subjected to offroading will also wear more than tires spending their time on pavement only.
- Storage Conditions: This applies to both your spare and any new tires you buy from a shop. A tire that is sitting unmounted will age more slowly than a tire that is mounted, but it will still age nonetheless. In addition, poor storage practices including exposure to the elements can further increase the speed of aging.
In other words, you should consider replacing your tires if they're older than 5-6 years or so. While some manufacturers like Continental and Michellin say that their tires can last up to 10 years, it's best to plan on replacing your tires at least every 5 years or so.
If you want to learn more about your tires, I highly recommend checking out the NHTSA's very comprehensive guide to tires.
2: Taking your dashboard lights (especially your check engine) for granted
When a dashboard light goes off in your car, there are two types of people.
Type 1 immediately heads to the mechanic or attempts to diagnose the issue themselves.
Type 2 asks questions like "can I ignore my check engine light?"
It's no secret that Type 2 people end up spending more money on car repairs.
Your dashboard warning lights are there for a reason, but all too often they go ignored until something goes very wrong.
There's a number of figures circulating around that estimate how bad this problem is, with some of them estimating up to 1/3rd of American drivers ignore dashboard lights altogether.
That's bad. Very bad.
We've written about your dashboard lights before, so I'll let that article do most of the talking.
Needless to say, if one of your lights come on, go get it checked! The check engine light, for instance, could be anything from a missing gas cap to a blown catalytic converter. Unless you're an expert mechanic, it's worth getting your car looked at.
The other option if you're adverse to mechanics is to get a car code scanner. A diagnostic scanner can save you the trip to a mechanic if it ends up being something simple, you'll be able to fix it yourself.
You can buy a code reader on Amazon or Walmart. These will work for all model years newer than 1996. Model years manufactured before 1996 require more specific car readers, as opposed to newer models that use a universal system.
3: Neglecting your engine air filter
You know what doesn't suck?
Dirty air filters.
I mean that literally. A dirty air filter restricts the airflow into your engine and throttles the performance of your car. Once your air filter gets dirty enough, it can begin sucking sand and dirt into the engine.
Some symptoms of a dirty air filter include your engine using more oil, and a lack power during sudden acceleration, although these aren't always noticeable.
Depending on how you drive, you'll need to replace your air filter every 15,000-30,000 miles. If you're driving in a climate with a lot of dirt and dust, or you're doing heavy offroading, you'll want to err closer to 15,000 miles.
An easy way to check your air filter is to see if any light can shine through the filter. With a new filter, the light will easily make it through. An old filter will not. Each car will have it's air filter in a different location. Your vehicle handbook (or Google) will be able to tell you where to look.
An air filter won't run you more than $40 dollars - so there's no reason to not replace it regularly.
4: Not checking your car's fluids regularly
There are 5 primary fluids (and 1 bonus fluid) in your car that you need to be aware of. Failure to maintain these fluids can land you in hot water! They are:
Checking your oil is simple. Your engine has a dipstick in it. Pull the dipstick out and then wipe it with a cloth. Dip it back in, and then you have your oil level.
Depending on where your oil levels are at, you may need to add more oil. Refer to your manufacturer's handbook to ensure you use the correct grade!
It's also important to pay attention to the texture and the color of your oil. Smear some of the oil on your fingers and rub them together. If you notice any grittiness, it means something is wearing down. Take your car to a mechanic if you notice any grittiness.
The color of the oil should be somewhere between a yellow, all the way up to a dark amber. If you notice your oil is dark brown, or black, it's time for an oil change.
How to check:
When to check: When your engine is warm, but not hot. Turn the engine off!
How often to check: Once a month is more than enough. Check your oil prior to any long driving trips for best results.
2: Transmission Fluid
Your transmission fluid is responsible for lubricating your transmission so that it can continue to run smoothly.
Unlike oil, your transmission fluid is a closed system. If your transmission fluid is low, that means something has gone wrong, and you should take your car to a mechanic soon.
In most cases, you'll just be inspecting the color of the fluid. Good transmission fluid will smell sweet, while bad transmission fluid will smell burnt. If you smell burning, you'll need a complete transmission flush before something goes wrong.
How to check:
When to check: While the engine is running!
How often to check: Once a month is more than enough. Again, I recommend checking it prior to any long trips. The last thing you want is a blown transmission when you're halfway through Texas.
3: Engine Coolant
As you might guess, engine coolant keeps your engine from overheating while you're driving. It also will keep your engine from freezing solid when it's bitterly cold out.
It's called antifreeze for a reason!
Most of the time your mechanic will handle adding more coolant for you, but you can do it yourself if needed. With engine coolant, you're checking to make sure there's enough fluid to keep your engine cool. Newer vehicles have a coolant reservoir. You want to check to make sure that it reaches the full line.
If it doesn't, you can add more coolant. Some coolants come pre-mixed with a 50/50 ratio of water to coolant, but otherwise you will need to mix it yourself. You should also choose the right coolant. Use the chart below as a guide. Most car manufacturers will have a specific type of OEM coolant, so it's worth having your car serviced at the brand service center.
|Type of Coolant||Color||Which Cars Use It?||How Often Does It Need To Be Changed?|
|Inorganic Additive Technology (IAT)||Green||Primarily used by older models - not commonly used anymore because of how quickly it wears out.||2 years / 24,000 miles|
|Organic Acid Technology (OAT)||Orange, Red, Yellow, Purple||Used by GM vehicles and many European Imports||5 years / 50,000 miles|
|Hybrid Organic Acid Technology (HOAT)||Orange, Yellow||Chrysler and Ford||5 years / 50,000 miles|
How to check:
When to check: When the engine is cool, and has been sitting for several hours. Never attempt to check your coolant while the engine is hot or running.
How often to check: Twice a year. You want to check once before summer starts, and then again before winter starts.
4: Brake Fluid
Your brake fluid is non-compressible hydraulic fluid that causes your brake rotors to squeeze down on your brake pads and stop your car.
Without it, your car won't stop when you hit the brake.
The good news is that brake fluid is part of a closed system, much like your transmission fluid, so it shouldn't be low. That doesn't mean you get a pass on checking it, though!
When checking your brake fluid you're looking for two things. First, you want your brake fluid to be a golden color. If it's brown, it's time for a flush. You also want to make sure that the fluid level is correct. If your brake fluid is leaking, you'll need to take your car to a mechanic!
How to check:
When to check: Any time, but you're better off checking it when the engine isn't too hot!
How often to check: Give it a quick glance any time you're checking your oil.
5: Power Steering Fluid
Power steering fluid helps keep your turns buttery smooth, something we take for granted! Before the early 1950s, where Chrysler made the first commercially available power steering system, it took herculean strength to turn most cars when they were stopped. Cars had larger wheels then to provide more leverage.
Power steering (and power steering fluid) changed all of that. If you're having difficulty turning the wheel, or you're hearing a creaking sound when you do, it's time to double check your power steering fluid.
You're looking for two things here. One, make sure that your power steering fluid is topped off. Secondly, check the color. Power steering fluid should be somewhere between clear, pinkish, or a light amber.
Black or brown power steering fluid is contaminated, and there's probably an issue underneath the hood to assess.
How to check:
When to check: With a cool car engine that has been sitting for at least 3 hours.
How often to check: Once a month is perfectly acceptable.
6: Windshield Wiper Fluid (Bonus!)
You didn't think I'd forget the ole' windshield now did you?
Having a full windshield wiper reservoir has saved my ass on several occasions. Whether it's salt accumulation if you live in the North, or insect swarms that completely cover your windshield, it's inevitable that things will stick to your windshield.
Considering that dry wiping can make the problem worse, you should always check to make sure you've got a good amount of fluid.
All you're really looking for is an indication that your wiper fluid is low. If so, add fluid.
Fluid is universal, luckily. If you need a recommendation, I use RainX All Season.
How to check:
When to check: Check with a cool engine. It's a pain in the butt to refill your reservoir when engine heat is in your face.
How often to check: Once every two months, or as needed if your reservoir runs out.
Overlooking brake pads
Having a case of bad brakes can never be part of good news for every motorist. Most of the time, unreplaced brake pads have led to greater problems attributed to the integrity of steering systems. In other words, not replacing your brake pads exposes your car to greater risks – the worst being crashes caused by faulty brakes. For that, make sure to replace your car’s brake pads the moment they start showing untenable wear and tear.
5: Ignoring your squeaky brakes
Raise your hand if you've ever heard the sound of screeching brakes.
In my opinion, it's almost as bad as nails on a chalkboard.
Even worse, it's not just your ears that are suffering. So is one of your car's most vital systems.
As your pads deteriorate, your car's braking performance will suffer. The worst case scenario - brake failure - results in over 300,000 accidents every year.
What that statistic doesn't tell you is the cost of replacing the parts that worn brake pads can damage.
Whether that's $300 dollars for re-surfacing your rotors, or $500 dollars to replace your calipers, you could be looking at a hefty bill.
How to tell when your brakes need repair:
- Screeching, grinding, and other friction noises.
- Loss of stopping power when braking.
- The steering wheel or brake pedal shaking when you brake.
- An acrid smell of burning rubber.
- Your brake light is on.
- Brake fluid on your tires.
Don't risk it with your brakes. When they start to make noise, get the brake pads changed.
6: Protect your car with an extended warranty from Protect My Car
While nothing will protect you if you fail to follow the suggestions above, having an extended warranty from Protect My Car can help protect you from the other, more expensive stuff.
Getting stuck with a $2,000 dollar bill for a new transmission is going to sting, unless you have one of our policies to help cover the cost.
Our policies at Protect My Car cover you in the event of a mechanical failure for some of the most expensive components of your car. Whether that's your engine, your transmission, or your drive train, we've got you covered. You'll never pay full price for covered repairs again.
Plus, Protect My Car gives you a 30-Day Money Back Guarantee! There's no risk. As a policy member, you also can enjoy:
24/7 Roadside Assistance
3 Free O.E.M. Oil Changes Yearly
2 Free Tire Rotations Yearly
Rental Reimbursement in the event your car needs service
Exclusive discounts with our suite of partners, including Enterprise, Jiffy Lube, and others
And many more
Our policies are also the most flexible on the market. Whether you have a new vehicle or your car is getting up there in years, we can still help you. Don't end up stuck on the side of the road like I did.
Under 300K miles
Not older than 20 years
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